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Human Society: Multi-Level and Multi-Dimensional Network of Social Groupings
By Sherwin Lu
2019-09-01 08:08:41


This article was first posted on this website on 2014-10-01 and is being re-posted as a "source article" for a section of the author’s new book DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISMOne with real Chinese characteristics, §I-6(3) Human Society: Multi-Level and Multi-Dimensional Network of Social Groupings

         DAOIST-LEGALIST SOCIALISM: One with real Chinese characteristics 
         (Table of contents)

EDITOR’S NOTE This is an exerpt from the author’s book in Chinese on philosophy and social theories published in 2013. The book partially summarizes the results of the author’s decades-long exploration in the realm of ideology and is rich in ideas both old and new at the same time – new expositions in modern terminology of traditional Chinese thought as applied to social issues and ideologies of the world today. Any comment and criticism and any offer to help improve the English translation of the whole book will be welcome and appreciated. For a list of contents of the book with links to other translated parts, please see: 

Where is the Mankind Heading for: Contests and realignments between ideologies in the new century: List of content



II. Human Society: A dynamically-balanced multi-dimensional whole (continued) 

II-2. Multi-dimensional and multi-level structure of human society (continued) 

II-2(2). Multi-Level and Multi-Dimensional Network of Social Groupings 

The multi-level feature of a society is not only manifest in administrative division but, as is more important, in the structural levels in many other forms of social associations of varying nature and on varying scales. Division into administrative levels is only one form. People are associated not only geographically but in many more other ways, such as ethnically (families – clans – nationalities - races), econimically (business units – enterprise groups, professional associations), politically (classes, parties, factions, public/government institutions), religiously (churches - religions, sects), culturally (schools of thought, academic/educational institutions, art organizations, other hobby groups), etc., etc. The relationships among all these groups can be in a variety of different dimensions: they might be either on different levels or on the same level, and then might be parallel, or in opposition to, or overlapping each other, or one containing the other. Recognition of the existence of all such kinds of social groupings and an understanding of their multi-dimensionality and especially of their structural multi-level features are of essential importance to the overcoming of the atomistic way of thinking. Hence the necessity of a focused discussion below: 

In the perspective of such Western-style abstact concepts as “equality” and “democracy”, the society is viewed as resembling half a flat Chinese chessboard with all the chessmen having the same shape, same color, same diameter, same height, and same weight – symbolizing so well the all-round equalness of all mutually independent human individuals in a society. Hundreds of thousands or of millions of such chessmen can equally decide who will be the “general” and, through him, how to draw the chessboard and make the moves. This is the flattened, individual-oriented view of the society in the atomistic perspective. It might not be accidental that a best-seller by the liberalist Thomas L. Friedman is titled The World is Flat, which glorifies the Western-style capitalist globalization. Obviously, this kind of social outlook is indeed the philosophical underpinning of the liberalist thought system. 

If one dismisses such abstract political notions and instead look at the real society in its true colors, however, one would find that it is most of the time through the medium of varying types of social groupings that the individuals make economic, political, and/or cultural contacts with other people and the society; chances of purely individual contacts are relatively rare. Sometimes, people may seem like acting as individuals, such as a company manager, a shop assistant, or an office clerk, but actually they are representatives in a sense of a certain social association, i.e., either a firm, or a store, or a government department, etc. From another point of view, it can be seen that each human individual as a social being is all the time involved in all sorts of social functional relationships with other individuals and that in every functional realm people are associated, closely or loosely, into social groupings or communities of varying sizes on varying scales. 

Any social group has at least two levels, i.e., the whole group as the top level and each and every individual member of the group as the bottom level. The relationship between an individual member and the whole group is similar to that between any two levels of any multi-level group. Actually, no one individual is an “atom” or “elementary particle” that is no more dividable, but is often a combination of different or even conflicting thoughts, intentions and inclinations. In other words, each and every level between, and including, the individuals at the bottom and the whole group at the top, while together constituting one multi-level organization, has its own subjectivity or independence relative to each other. Any view denying this is monolithism. Then, if anything monolithic is viewd as an “elementary particle” in an even larger monolithic unit, this is atomism. Therefore, monolithism leads to atomism and atomism is necessarily monolithistic, because it treats something as individable. Here is seen the common philosophical underpinning shared by atomistic-individualistic capitalism and traditional monolithic-collectivistic socialism, each mirroring the other (A new socialism in line with the principle of dynamic balance of a multi-dimensional whole would be another story, to be discussed later on). 

Social groups of all types are not only apparently related with and impacting one another but inherently penetrating and adjusting to each other as well. Meanwhile, each and every group as well as individual has its own irreplacable subjectivity. Groups or individuals with such subjectivity are called “acting units” by the American symbolic interactionist sociologist H. G. Blumer (ReynoldsLarry T. & Nancy J. Herman-Kinney, ed., 2003, Handbook of symbolic interactionism, Walnut Creek, CA, USA: Altamira Press. P. 301-302). The subjectivity of individuals might be easier to understand. But how is the subjectivity of a group to be understood? What is it that underlies such subjectivity?  Is it a kind of “commonness” shared by all the members of the group? Or some “common interests”? As a matter of fact, there exists no absolute “commonness” or “common interests” among the members (individuals or smaller member groups) of any group. What exists is the overlapping of the members’ more or less different individualities or of their particular interests. But the overlapping part cannot be separated from the respective non-overlapping parts, as, once separated, the overall configuration in terms of overlapping or not would be changed. Therefore, even if there is overlapping, it exists only in a relative sense, nothing absolute at all. What is called “commonness” or “common interests” is but an expedient generalization of the ever-shifting momentary situation of interaction and mutual accommodation among the partially overlapping and ultimately different individualities or particular interests. In other words, there exists no abstract “commonness” or “common interests” but palpable interaction and mutual accommodation. So, the so-called “subjectivity” is nothing absolute that is static and immutable but something relative that changes all the time like an amoeba to accommodate the changing internal and external relationships. But, such subjectivity does exist, even if for only an instant, relative to a specific time-space context and to other distinguishable entities, just as we acknowledge the existence of subjectivity of a human individual or an amoeba although both are changing all the time. In fact, the subjectivity of a human individual is no other than a momentary existence involving never-ending interactions and mutual accommodations among many kinds of heterogeneous factors, physical and psychological, inside the person as a social animal. 

Here it is necessary to single out the issue of subjectivity of nation-states, which have been shaped by different natural and historical conditions. In the atomistic perspective, a nation-state is seen as a mechanic conglomeration of millions or hundreds of millions of human individuals each looking after his/her own interests, and the will and interests of such a state is equal to the sum total of all the individuals’ will and interests added together. This perspective ignores the fact that the state as a special kind of social grouping should have its own relatively independent will and interests and can conversely have its impact on the will and interests of all individuals and all large and small groups insde and outside of it. The atomistic social outlook does not recognize the two-way interaction towards a dynamic balance between the state and all the individuals, ignores the importance of the will and actions of the state as a social group entity to the well-being of the people, and one-sidedly over-emphasized the importance of the respective one-way actions of all individuals as free “acting units”, thus ipso facto advocating laissez faire policies in governing the state, which was also embodied in Confucianist approach towards macro-social economy.  Such advocators would indulge those persons and groups in privileged positions in taking advantage of those in unfavaroble conditions. Such policies would inevitably result in the split of the society between the privileged few and the powerless majority and trigger social disturbance, mass violence and even wars. No wonder early Western liberalists looked up to Confucius as the source of inspiration from the East and the eighteenth century French economiist François Quesnay, who had greatly influenced Adam Smith, was hailed as the “Confucius of the West”. 

On the other hand, monolithic social view would look upon any individuals and lower-level groups as “nuts and bolts” on a grand political machine, none with any subjectivity as an independent entity but each completely subjected as a secondary entity to the will and interests of a certain class or of the state. All isms that originated in this world view, such as class-based collectivism, extreme nationalism, statism, and totalitarianism, belittle or totally deny the necessity of interactions between different entities and diferent levels, such interactions as aimed at an all-round balance throughout the group or society; they deny such interactions as the social basis for the formation and operation of the supreme will of the national community. The former Soviet Union and other traditional socialist countries suffered setbacks, ideologically speaking, mainly because of this failure in theories, among others. 

Both atomism and monolithism, seemingly opposite to each other, have a same blind spot, that is, failure in seeing the simultaneous existence of various kinds of social groups on different structural levels and the dynamic interactions between these entities in multiple directions. Therefore, the two are one same thing, not two things. In fact, some politicians would often alternately use these two idelogical tools to serve the same speical interests of their own. 

Now, this also involves the public-vs.-private issue. Liberalist political and economic theories would use the distinction between “public realm” and “private realm” to obscure the dovetailed relatedness and co-adaptation between the politics and economy of a capitalist society so as to cover up their anti-freedom and anti-democratic nature. According to such theories, politics belongs to the public realm while economy the private – the two are separated. In economy there is only an issue of freedom or lack of freedom, nothing to do with democracy or lack of democracy. In the individual-oriented atomistic perspective, what is seen is either each and every isolated individual (and individual family), which is considered as private, or the whole population, considered as public. That is to say, either public or private, nothing in between, so that such important organizations as business enterprises are said to be purely “private” and thus the hegemony by capital over labor within business associations is concealed. 

As a matter of fact, even though a family can be regarded as private relative to the macro society, its internal affairs, if related to all its members, are of a “public” nature to each of its memers. The management of “public” affairs, even of a family, is a kind of politics; hence we have patriarchal or matriarchal family politics. Such is also the case with business enterprises and all other kinds of social associations. An association is a mini-society with its own economy, politics and culture, thus incurring the issue of democracy in the management pattern and the issue of public vs. private both internally and externally. The affairs of an enterprise, while being “private” relative to the macro society, are “public” to every member who is contributing something, either capital or labor, to it, because the affairs involve the vital interests of each of them. In a word, there is always a “public” aspect in “private” groups and “private” aspects in “public” affairs – neither totally public, nor totally private, or in other words, being both public and private at the same time. The management of any public affairs is politics and should be run in a democratic way. 

Furthermore, there is another sense in saying “both public and private at the same time”: In the contemporary context of large-scale socialized and globalized production (including financial and other services), the operation of “private” enterprises does not only affect the livelihood of all their working members but also has far-reaching and lasting, or even penetratingly dominating inluence on the macro “public”’s daily lives and vital interests through their products/services’ infiltration and interference into people’s economic, political and cultural life in the macro society of a region, a nation or even the whole world (e.g., dire consequences of economic depression and pollution of the environment due to big capital’s irresponsible and immoral practices). Obviously, the “private” and the “public” cannot be totally divorced. The result of separation is that “the most powerful form of collective organization in contemporary capitalism – the modern business corporation – is stripped of its communal status in liberal theory… treated as a quasi individual in law… [thus] exempt[ing] such basic social spheres as the economy and the family from scrutiny according to democratic norms.” (Bowles and Gintis, Democracy and Capitalism: Property, community, and the contradictions of modern social thought, Basic Books, New York. 1986. PP. 16-17.) Thus, the lack of freedom, equality and democracy within capitalist enterprises is slickly covered up behind the banner of “economic liberty” and develops into the fundamental contradiction between capital’s “private” ownership of means of production and the “public” nature of large-scale socialized production, and into conflicts between a rich handful who rule and manage on the strength of their capital and the majority of working people who are being oppressed, exploited and fooled. Hence the conclusion that all social organizations with a “public” nature, i.e., their affairs involving the interests of every individual member, should be democratically managed, with each and every “private” individual exercising equal human rights. 

       To sum up, a society is not like a flat chessboard manned by numerous unrelated and formally identical human atoms, but an ever-changing multi-dimansional network of social groups (associations or communities), all being parallel to or crisscrossing or overlapping one another in various directions: up-down, or side-to-side, or forward-back, or else. This is a dynamic outlook on the society as one composed of all sorts of groups on many levels, an outlook different from a mechanically differentiated pluralism in a narrower sense, which has been in vogue so far. From this multi-dimensional point of view, those individual- or collective-oriented social outlooks can be abandoned and replaced by one that is dynamic and relations-oriented, i.e., oriented towards numerous dynamic relationships between individuals, between groups, between individuals and groups, between different realms and between different levels, etc. This outlook is distinguished both from individual-oriented atomism and from either the dualistic kind of communitarianism that pits the individual against the group or the monolithic kind that totally dissolves all individuality in the collective. With such an all-round multi-dimensional social view as a referential framework that accommodates both the individual’s and the collective’s subjectivity, many inconsistancies in social theories and human practice can be more easily accounted for and get straightened out.
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